District 9’s House of Representatives candidates have a lot in common. They all live within 15 miles of one another in Whitman County, and they all see adding jobs and improving access to education as their two priorities.
But where the two Republicans from Colfax and two Democrats from Pullman differ is how to do it.
The sole incumbent, Don Cox, 65, is a Republican who has held Position 1 for three terms. The Colfax man is seen by many of his Olympia colleagues as the authority on education. He has been a teacher, a superintendent and he holds a doctorate in educational leadership. On the House’s Higher Education Committee, Cox is the ranking minority leader. He was also recently elected to the Washington Institute of Public Policy.
While his opponent, 29-year-old Democrat Sean Gallegos of Pullman, shares Cox’s views on many issues – including an opposition to charter schools – his differing priorities include making basic health care affordable with government involvement.
Gallegos, a self-employed computer consultant, said he was recently criticized for being too close to Cox. They talk to each other at community events, and on one occasion, since Gallegos doesn’t drive because of a seizure disorder, Cox has given him a lift to a public forum. The younger candidate said that one of the best things he has come away with from his campaign is a friendship with his opponent, a man he respects.
Republican David Buri, 41, wants to fill Position 2, the seat being vacated by state Senate candidate Mark Schoesler, because he believes he can make a difference in a community he has served as a state Senate legislative aide since 1999. His great-grandfather settled near Colfax in 1884. “Eastern Washington at that time was a place of opportunity,” he said. “You don’t hear that anymore.”
Buri, a former bank vice president in Colfax, said his goals are protecting the district’s agricultural base, making the state more business-friendly and making college more accessible.
His opponent, Democrat Eileen Macoll, 49, is making her first run for public office, but points to her four years as chairwoman of the Whitman County Democrats and her participation on the Democrats’ state platform committee as background.
The Pullman real estate manager said she’s running to break through the partisan gridlock in Olympia.
“This last session of the Legislature was really disappointing,” she said, adding that while a lot was done, a number of issues important to Eastern Washington got lost.
The four House candidates have had a busy campaign season, hitting communities in the far reaches of the six-county district and attending nearly every public event. The biggest forum took place a few weeks ago in the student union on Washington State University’s campus and drew a crowd of more than 200. The smallest, was a recent meeting in Clarkston where the candidates outnumbered the audience.
Often the questions would turn to health care, higher education and the state budget.
At a recent forum in Pullman, Gallegos said the state should revise where it’s spending its education money, pointing to the WASL test, which costs millions to administer to the state’s schoolchildren. The test is ineffective and that money could be used where it would do more good, he told the crowd.
His opponent, Cox, said there are no easy answers with the budget, but the two largest issues are how to create an economy that produced more jobs for the district and how to accommodate the increasing demand for higher education. “That’s the big question right now, how to go about it.”
Buri and Macoll focused on the economy.
Citing the example of Applebee’s restaurant choosing not to build in Pullman, but eight miles away in Moscow, Idaho, Buri said the state needs friendlier business regulations.
Buri also said he’d like to see a dedicated funding source for small and local governments, who are really hurting from the passage of Initiative 695, which reduced the vehicle registration tax.
Macoll sees potential for businesses based on agriculture and scientific research that already takes place in the district. Those businesses will help the struggling rural communities by bringing in new jobs and protecting a way of life, she said.
None of the candidates thought charter schools are a good idea.
Buri said the only way to do one was under the auspices of a local school board where it could be locally controlled. Macoll said the legislation for them so far has been flawed.
Gallegos said the people in the district don’t seem to support them, and he wouldn’t either. And Cox said he doesn’t support them for practical reasons, noting that Washington’s Constitution requires a uniform system of public education and “charter schools start to weaken that commitment.”
When it comes to funding for higher education – a key issue for this district because it holds WSU and Eastern Washington University – all the candidates agreed the schools need more state support.
Cox said higher education would come out among the top three priorities for the state government and that he believes the state can pull together the $250 million needed for the student boom by 2008 without raising taxes.
Gallegos said the state needs to review how it is spending its money and that by finding efficiencies like eliminating the WASL, it could find money for other programs.
Macoll said she doesn’t have any big ideas for increasing funding, but “what I do have is the will to make it happen,” she said. “I’m going to be long and loud.”
Buri said he would follow Cox’s lead as the expert in education.
Wrapping up at their recent Pullman forum, the candidates gave the voters their reasons to be elected.
Macoll, who described herself as a conservative Democrat, said she was well suited to represent the needs of the district.
Gallegos said he would always tell the truth and never ask for money if he wasn’t sure where it would be spent.
Cox said it has been refreshing to discuss the issues with the constituents in person over the past few months, “I have the energy and enthusiasm to serve another term.”
And Buri, admitting that he has a lot to learn yet, pointed to his well-established relationships in Olympia that, along with his local experience, would give him a head start during the next legislative session.
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